Her first job was as a tea girl for her father’s Zimbabwe-based consulting firm. She moved up to a role as a typist, then to his personal assistant by the time she was just 16.
But it was a family setback that caused her to think about entrepreneurship. Her father became ill and his business began to falter, and while his hospital bills were mounting, his company’s revenue was dropping.
The family sold off all of their cars, and whipped out their savings. Eventually Nullens launched more than just one company, becoming a serial entrepreneur.
Among her companies are Conquered Events, Conquered TV, and L’eau Choisie, a bottled still water brand, both based in Zimbabwe and South Africa.
Her first business, L’eau Choisie, is very successful. It’s in a sector that is growing. In fact, according to one recent survey the bottled water market in South Africa is expected to grow 7.01 percent by revenue during the period 2016-2020.
Nullens tells AFKInsider about the way in which her childhood helped her to become a successful serial entrepreneur.
AFKInsider: How did you fund your startups?
Shaleen Manhire Nullens: My husband, who wasn’t my husband then, was working and we also got a bit of funds coming through doing a few side jobs in order to manage to fund the first business, L’eau Choisie, and get it started.
AFKInsider: What have been some of the financial challenges you have faced?
Shaleen Manhire Nullens: There were a lot of challenges that we faced, and of course, finance challenges being the first one. It takes a lot of money to be able to start such a business. We didn’t get a loan from the bank because a lot of things were asked, security, etc., which wasn’t the right time. For us to be able to buy stock and start with the bottling, etc., I had to go negotiate with the supplier and, mind you, we had no track record with them. We were just new clients walking in and they had no idea whether they could trust us. All of that was a huge challenge for us to be able to conquer, start a business and move forward.
AFKInsider: What have been some lessons you have learned about being an entrepreneur?
Shaleen Manhire Nullens: One of the lessons I learned was don’t put all your eggs in one basket. For example, my dad and I were always counting on the family business because that’s all we had and that’s all that was looking after everyone. Everything was perfect, no one thought that something wrong could happen, that our life could literally change. So don’t take things for granted, there always is room for change. Anything could happen.
AFKInsider: What do you like the best about being a entrepreneur?
Shaleen Manhire Nullens: The best thing that I like about entrepreneurship is to be able to implement the ideas that you have in your mind. You have something, if you are innovative enough of course, an idea that you think could make the business better, you need to be able to implement it. Unlike corporate, where you’d have to go through stages and you’d have to be believed in to take your idea. With this, you is you.
You believe that this is going to be successful, and it’s all about putting your mind and heart into it and having a proper strategy and be able to implement it. You don’t need someone else to say no or whatever, it’s all up to you. So just having that freedom of believing in yourself and implementing is what makes entrepreneurship excellent, besides the flexible hours. The flexible hours work both ways as well because you can plan your schedule but when you have terrible deadlines, you realize that you actually don’t have time off but you have to work throughout.
AFKInsider: How supportive is your country towards entrepreneurs?
Shaleen Manhire Nullens: Is my country supportive? Well firstly, being based in two countries, in Zimbabwe there is a march for women, the economy itself doesn’t even have anything to support anyone. Mentioning women is a totally different story.
But, from the South African point of view, there is support, women are in entrepreneurship, which is fair enough. Well, with the mineral water business, to be able to stand out from competitors is a bit tricky because operating in a country like Zimbabwe, price is everything. People buy because it’s the lowest price, so you end up competing with price, which is not the best strategy you can use in business. If anyone could come with a lower price, and they could get you out of business. In Zimbabwe, price had to be the major thing, which is something I believe in when you are in business to use price as a strategy, but we had to due to the situation.
AFKInsider: What are your upcoming goals?
Shaleen Manhire Nullens: My goals for 2018 is to grow the businesses I have currently. We want to buy two more businesses next year, so that’s the goal. Not to grow too fast but to keep an eye out for opportunities, anything that we could get into, we’re always on the lookout for how we could grow our portfolio. 2018 is also to grow the events business bigger than what it is now. And there’s a big company we have an eye on, which we can’t really discuss now and it would really be an achievement that we acquire that.
AFKInsider: How did Conquered Events get started?
Shaleen Manhire Nullens: I started when I was planning my own wedding, it was quite fun, I didn’t find a wedding planner so I decided to do it myself. While doing it, it was so enjoyable and I thought that I wouldn’t mind doing this. About a couple of months, we started Conquered Events. We started off with a big wedding–we are talking about 300 people and it was the first one we did. It was a big challenge but it was very successful. No one picked up that it was our first event and that was exciting.
One of the business lessons I learned is you need to be a step ahead and be aware of what’s changing in your environment. If you are best in what you do but not aware of the changes that are happening around your industry, you will be out before you know. Someone else will do it better and your clients will move to them. You need to always stay relevant because if you stay in your comfort zone, you will lose everything that you have.
AFKInsider: What advice would you pass on?
Shaleen Manhire Nullens: My advice to new entrepreneurs is that be patient, nothing comes in quick or easy. As you move forward, look at the established ones in your industry and study and understand what they are doing. They’re surely missing what the end client needs, try to identify that and provide that service so you stick out even from the ones that are established.
AFKInsider: Your family seem to have instilled an entrepreneurial spirit in you.
Shaleen Manhire Nullens: I started working as a tea girl at my dad’s consulting firm at 14. My dad said I have to work every day after school. I didn’t like it but he wouldn’t have it any other way. In just four months, I impressed him and was promoted to typist, and to personal assistant at 16.
He started taking me to presentations and meetings. He asked me to silently observe and learn. One day, he had a presentation at the World Bank and he asked me to do the introduction, 15 minutes before the meeting. I was so scared but as I spoke, my nerves settled slowly.
My father had a stroke in 2010. I had to take over his responsibilities at work to keep the company running, but it was hard. His clients knew me because I had been working for him since I was 14, but they only wanted him to oversee the projects. They only felt comfortable with him on board. Now that he was incapacitated, they cancelled their contracts.
Hospital bills were piling. And money was going out fast, we sold all our cars and used up all savings to keep afloat. My dad was struggling. He couldn’t even recognize who we were or where he was. It was very hard. We came from having everything at home to having nothing at all.
There we didn’t even know what we were going to eat. People on the outside didn’t know what was happening because we kept smiling. I was the oldest at home and had to be strong for my siblings. My little sister was in school, I remember they were kicking her out for lack of payment. I had a little money saved for my MBA, I used it to pay.
I had to find a way to take us out of that hardship. Zimbabwe didn’t have enough bottled water companies on the market. I had done my research and knew this was going to be a good business, but I didn’t have enough money to start. This had to work. This was my breakthrough.
AFKInsider: So how did you move forward?
Shaleen Manhire Nullens: I hunted and got a new job and managed accounts of the few clients that remained at my dad’s company.
I asked a friend to create a logo for free and negotiated to make payments bit by bit with suppliers. We didn’t have any machinery, we did everything manually. We didn’t even have a machine to fill the water bottles; we had to measure with our eyes. I then moved door to door at big shops and asked them to taste and stock my water.
Clients flocked and the business flourished but the success was short-lived. We had sent in all our documentation for certification but the health department didn’t get them because their fax was down. Water brands which were certified were published and ours wasn’t. All waters that were not listed were removed from shelves. Our clients didn’t want to take the risk of buying from us anymore because they would lose money if their stock was thrown away. Even though it wasn’t our fault, we had a 50 percent drop in our revenue.
AFKInsider: How did you handle this?
Shaleen Manhire Nullens: It meant eight weeks of no profit. I fought hard for the mistake to be fixed. When all was well, I had to re-introduce the brand to the market again and go back to clients and convince them to buy.
This dust settled, but more rose. The battles were not over. There were more and more brands coming into the country and to make it worse the council wanted to put a meter on the borehole so they can charge us. They said we were eating into the country’s table water.
Coupled with Zimbabwe’s declining economic conditions, i downsized the water business in Zimbabwe and concentrated on building other businesses in Johannesburg, South Africa. This happened around the time I was getting married. I didn’t have a wedding planner and I enjoyed planning my wedding. I was inspired to found Conquered Events in 2014. My first event was a very big wedding. I wasn’t sure I would be able to pull it off but I had to be strong and do what needed to be done. People from the wedding were very happy and started referring people to me before I even started advertising,” she says.
As part of marketing strategy and love for media, I also founded Conquered TV, an entertainment online TV channel. Conquered TV is like a window that lets me see through the world. I get to network with people and through that, I get clients for my other companies. It doesn’t bring in any money yet, it is actually a necessary expense.
I named the companies Conquered Events and Conquered TV because I believe I have conquered even when the universe seemed to be against me. The business is a big money spinner that is helping us survive comfortably now.